By Emily Wagster Pettus | The Associated Press
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The early rock ‘n’ roll hit “Johnny B. Goode” blared as Johnny DuPree stepped onto a small stage at Millsaps College and prepared to address more than 100 supporters at a campaign rally.
“If I could dance, I’d do that,” joked DuPree, the Democratic nominee for Mississippi governor.
His self-deprecating remarks brought laughter and applause from the audience made up mostly of Democratic women, including his wife and their two grown daughters.
In the Nov. 8 gubernatorial election, DuPree, the third-term mayor of Hattiesburg, faces Republican Phil Bryant, the first-term lieutenant governor. It’s been an uphill climb for DuPree, who’s been outspent more than 7-to-1 in a race to succeed Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, who couldn’t seek re-election.
Still, DuPree has declined to publicly criticize Bryant — a stance that has pleased some of his supporters and perplexed others.
“This is a different campaign,” DuPree said at the Millsaps gathering, where he was supported by the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida.
DuPree noted news reports that said some Mississippi Democrats shy away from appearing with national leaders. “The Democratic Party accepts everybody, regardless of who you are,” he said. “That’s what America is. America is a melting pot that we all love.”
DuPree won the Democratic nomination for governor by defeating Clarksdale attorney and businessman Bill Luckett in an Aug. 23 primary runoff. The 57-year-old mayor made history as the first black major-party nominee for governor of Mississippi, but he has not made race an issue during the campaign.
DuPree is also the first black mayor of Hattiesburg, Mississippi’s third-largest city. The Census Bureau website says Hattiesburg’s population increased from 44,779 in 2000 to an estimated 53,582 in 2009. The city’s population is 48.4 percent black and 46.9 percent white.
DuPree points to his record as Hattiesburg mayor as indication of what he’d do as governor. He said he has maintained city services without raising local taxes or furloughing or firing city employees.
He says that if he’s elected governor, he wants to increase enforcement of tax collection efforts to pull in more state revenue from corporations that he said are not paying what they should. He also proposes providing income-tax exemptions for teachers with at least three years’ experience. Mississippi has some of the lowest teacher pay in the nation, and DuPree said the tax exemptions could help keep experienced educators on the job.
Lavai Grubbs, a third-grade teacher in Mendenhall, said she supports DuPree because she likes his proposals to help teachers. She said it’s important that the next governor focus on improving schools.
“It’s like education is always on the backburner,” said Grubbs, 30.
DuPree started working when he was 8 years old, selling copies of the Hattiesburg American newspaper to help supplement the modest income his single mother earned as a domestic worker.
DuPree and his wife, Johniece, married when he was 19 and she was 17 and they had two daughters. He started his career working 15 years for Sears, Roebuck & Co., then started a real estate company in 1988. He joined the Hattiesburg School Board in 1987, became a Forrest County supervisor in 1992 and was elected mayor of Hattiesburg in 2001.
DuPree graduated in 1972 from what is now Hattiesburg High School. He later earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science from the University of Southern Mississippi and a doctorate in urban higher education from Jackson State University.
At most campaign appearances the past several months, DuPree has been accompanied by his wife, one or both of their two grown daughters, a son-in-law and 4-year-old grandson.
Jennifer Crumpler, secretary of the Forrest County Democratic executive committee, said she has known Johnny and Johniece DuPree for years.
“We need leaders who understand the challenges everyday Mississippians face,” Crumpler said. “The DuPrees are people of great compassion and character. Mayor DuPree is the strong leader we need to move Mississippi forward, not only on issues of health care, but on jobs and education, as well.”